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Plays Up To Shakespeare

( Originally Published 1914 )



THE recent vogue of plays like The Servant in the House, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, The Dawn of Tomorrow, and Everywoman sends the mind back to the early history of English drama and is full of instruction. Such drama is a reversion to type, it suggests the origin of all drama in religion. It raises the interesting question whether the blasÚ modern theater world will not respond, even as did the primitive audiences of the middle ages, to plays of spiritual appeal, even of distinct didactic purpose. And the suggestion is strengthened when the popularity is recalled of the morality play of Everyman a few years since, that being a revival of a typical mediaeval drama of the kind. It almost looks as if we had failed to take into account the ready response of modern men and women to the higher motives on the stage; have failed to credit the substratum of seriousness in that chance collection of human beings which constitutes a theater audience. After all, they are very much like children, when under the influence of mob psychology; sensitive, plastic to the lofty and noble as they are to the baser suggestions that come to them across the footlights. In any case, these late experiences, which came by way of surprise to the professional purveyors of theatrical entertainment, give added emphasis to the statement that the stage is the child of mother church, and that the origin of drama in the countries whereof we have record is always religious. The mediŠval beginnings in Europe and England have been described in their details by many scholars. Suffice it here to say that the play's birthplace is at the altar end of the cathedral, an extension of the regular service. The actors were priests, the audience the vast hushed throngs moved upon by incense, lights, music, and the intoned sacred words, and, for the touch of the dramatic which was to be the seed of a wonderful development, we may add some portion of the sacred story acted out by the stoled players and envisaged in the scenic pomp of the place. The lesson of the holy day was thus brought home to the multitude as it never would have been by the mere recital of the Latin words ; scene and action lent their persuasive power to the natural associations of the church. Such is the source of modern drama; what was in the course of time to become "mere amusement," in the foolish phrase, began as worship; and if we go far back into the Orient, or to the south-lying lands on the Mediterranean, we find in India and Greece alike this union of art and worship, whether the play began within church or temple or be-fore Dionysian altars reared upon the green sward. The good and the beautiful, the esthetic and the spiritual, ever intertwined in the story of primitive culture.

And the gradual growth from this mediŠval beginning is clear. First, a scenic elaboration of part of the service, centering in some portion of the life and death of Christ; then, as the scenic side grew more complex, a removal to the grounds outside the cathedral; an extension of the subject-matter to include a reverent treatment of other portions of the Bible narrative; next, the taking over of biblical drama by the guilds, or crafts, under the auspices of the patron saints of the various organizations, as when, on Corpus Christi day, one of the great saints' days of the year, a cycle of plays was presented in a town with the populace agog to witness it, and the movable vans fol-lowed each other at the street corners, presenting scene after scene of the story. Then a further extension of motives which admitted the use of the lives of the saints who presided over the guilds ; and finally the further enlargement of theme due to the writing of drama of which the personages were abstract moral qualities, giving the name of Morality to this kind of play. Such, described with utter simplicity and brevity, was the interesting evolution.

Aside from all technicalities, and stripped of much of moment to the specialist, we have in this origin and early development a blend of amusement and instruction; a religious purpose linked with a frank recognition of the fact that if you make worship attractive you strengthen its hold upon mankindŚa truth sadly lost sight of by the later Puritans. The church was wise, indeed, to unite these elements of life, to seize upon the psychology of the show and to use it for the purpose of saving souls. It was not until the sixteenth century and the immediate predecessors of Shakespeare that the play, under the influence of renaissance culture and the inevitable secularization of the theater in antagonism to the Puri-tan view of amusement, waxed worldly, and little by little lost the earmarks of its holy birth and upbringing.

The day when the priests, still the actors of the play, walked down the nave and issued from the great western door of the cathedral, to continue the dramatic representations under the open sky, was truly a memorable one in dramatic history. The first instinct was not that of secularization, but rather the desire for freer opportunity to enact the sacred stories ; a larger stage, more scope for dramatic action. Yet, although for generations the play remained religious in subject-matter and intent, it was inevitable that in time it should come to realize that its function was to body forth human life, unbounded by Bible themes : all that can happen to human beings on earth and between heaven and hell and beyond them, being fit material for treatment, since all the world's a stage, and flesh and blood of more vital interest to humanity at large than aught else. The rapid humanization of the religious material can be easily traced in the coarse satire and broad humor introduced into the Bible narratives: a free and easy handling of sacred scene and character natural to a more na´ve time and by no means implying irreverence. Thus, in the Noah story, Mrs. Noah becomes a stout shrew whose unwillingness to come in out of the wet and bestow herself in dry quarters in the Ark must have been hugely enjoyed by the fifteenth century populace. And the Vice of the morality play degenerates into the clown of the performance, while even the Devil himself is made a cause for laughter.

Another significant step in the advance of the drama was made when the crafts took over the representations; for it democratized the show, without cheapening it or losing sight of its instructional nature. When the booths, or pageants as they were called, drew up at the crossing of the ways and performed their part in some story of didactic purport and broadly human, hearty, English atmosphere, with an outdoor flavor and decorative features of masque and pageantry, the spectators saw the prototype of the historic pageants which just now are coming again into favor. The drama of the future was shaping in a matrix which was the best possible to assure a long life, under popular, natural conditions. These conditions were to be modified and distorted by other, later additions from the cultural influence of the past and under the domination of literary traditions ; but here was the original mold.

The method of presentation, too, had its sure effect upon the theater which was to follow this popular folk beginning. The movable van, set upon wheels, with its space beneath where behind a curtain the actors changed their costumes, suggests in form and upfitting the first primitive stages of the playhouses erected in the second half of the sixteenth century. Since but one episode or act of the play was to be given, there was no need of a change of scene, and the stage could be simple accordingly. Contemporary cuts show us the limited dimensions, the shallow depth and the bareness of accessories typical of this earliest of the housings of the drama, for such it might fairly be called. Obviously, on such a stage, the manner and method of portrayal are strictly defined: done out of doors, before a shifting multitude of all classes, with no close cohesion or unity, since another part of the story was told in another spot, the play, to get acrossŚnot the footlights, for there were noneŚbut the intervening space which separated actors and audience, must be conveyed in broad simple outline and in graphic episodes, the very attributes which to-day, despite all subtleties and finesse, can be relied upon to bring response from the spectators in a theater. It must have been a great event when, in some quiet English town upon a day significant in church annals, the players' booths began their cycle, and the motley crowd gathered to hear the Bible narratives familiar to each and all, even as the Greek myths which are the stock material of the Greek drama were known to the vast concourse in the hillside theater of that day. In effect the circus had come to town, and we may be sure every urchin knew it and could be found open-mouthed in the front row of spectators. No possibility here of subtlety and less of psychologie morbidity. The beat of the announcing drum, the eager murmur of the multitude, the gay costumes and colorful booth, all ministered to the natural delight of the populace in show and story. The fun relieved the serious matter, and the serious mat-ter made the fun acceptable. With no shift of scenery, the broadest liberty, not to say license, in the particulars of time and place were practiced; the classic unities were for a later and more sophisticate drama. There was no curtain and therefore no entr'act to interrupt the two hours' traffic of the stage; the play was continuous in a sense other than the modern.

As a result of these early conditions, the English play was to show through its history a fluidity, a plastic adaptation of material to end, in sharp contrast with other nations, the French, for one, whose first drama was en-acted in a tennis court of fixed location, deep perspective and static scenery.

On the holy days which, as the etymology shows, were also holidays from the point of view of the crowd, drama was vigorously purveyed which made the primitive appeals of pathos, melodrama, farce and comedy. The actors became secular, but for long they must have been inspired with a sense of moral obligation in their work; a beautiful survival of which is to be seen at Oberammergau to-day. And the play itself remained religious in content and intention for generations after it had walked out of the church door. The church took alarm at last, aware that an instrument of mighty potency had been taken out of its hands. It is not surprising to find various popes passing edicts against this new and growingly influential form of public entertain-ment. It seemed to be on the way to become a rival. This may well have had its effect in the rapid taking over of the drama by the guilds, as later it was adopted by still more worldly organizations.

It was not from the people that the change to complete secularization of subject-matter and treatment came; but from higher cultural sources : from the schools and universities, touched by renaissance influences ; as where Bishop Still produced Gammer Gurton's Needle for school use, the first English comedy; or from court folk, as when Lord Buckhurst with his associate, Sackville, wrote the frigid Gorbudoc based on the Senecan model and honorable historically because it is the first English tragedy. The play of Plautian derivation, Ralph Roister Doister, our first comedy of intrigue, is another example of cultural influences which came in to modify the main stream of development from the folk plays.

This was in the sixteenth century, but for over two centuries the genuine English play had been forming itself in the religious nursery, as we saw. Now these other exotic and literary influences began to blend with the native, and the story of the drama becomes there-fore more complex. The school and the court, classic literature and that of mediŠval Europe, which represented the humanism it begot, fast qualified the product. But the straightest, most natural issue from the na´ve morality and miracle genre is the robustious melodrama illustrated by such plays as Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe's Edward II; which in turn lead directly on to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Hamlet and chronicle history drama like Richard III; and on the side of farce, Gammer Gorton's Needle, so broadly English in its fun, is in the line of descent. And in proportion as the popular elements of rhetoric, show and moralizing were retained, was the appeal to the general audience made, and the drama genuinely English.

Up to 1576 we are concerned with the history of the drama and there is no public theater in the sense of a building erected for theatrical performances. After the strolling players with their booths, plays were given in scholastic halls, in schools and in private residences; while the more democratic and direct descendant of the pageants is to be seen in the inn yards where the stable end of the courtyard, inclosed on three sides by its parallelogram of galleries, is the rudimentary plan for the Elizabethan playhouse, when it comes, toward the end of the sixteenth century. But with the year 1576 and the erection in Shoreditch of the first Theater on English soilŚso called, because it had no rivals and the name was there-fore distinctiveŚthe proper history of the institution begins. It marks a most important forward step in dramatic progress.

There is significance in the phrase descriptive of this first building; it was set up "in the fields," as the words run : which means, beyond city limits, for the city fathers, increasingly Puritan in feeling, looked dubiously upon an amusement already so much a favorite with all classes ; it might prove a moral as well as physical plague spot by its crowding together of a heterogeneous multitude within pent quarters. Once started, the theater idea met with such hospitable reception that these houses were rapidly increased, until by the century's end half a dozen of the curious wooden hexagonal structures could be seen on the south-ward bank of the Thames, near the water, central in interest as we now look back upon them being The Globe, built in 1599 from the material of the demolished Shoreditch playhouse, and famed forever as Shakespeare's own house. Here at three o'clock of the afternoon upon a stage open to the sky and with the common run of spectators standing in the pit where now lounge the luxuriant occupants of orchestra seats, while those of the better sort sat on the stage or in the boxes which flanked the sides of the house and suggested the inn galleries of the earlier arrangement, were first seen the robust predecessors of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd and Peele and Nash; and later, Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ben Jonson and the other immortals whose names are names to conjure with, even to this day. Played in the daylight, and most crudely lighted, the play was deprived of the illusion produced by modern artificial light, and the stage, projecting far down into the audience, made equally impossible the illusion of the proscenium arch, a picture stage set apart from life and constituting a world of its own for the representation of the mimic story. There was small need for make-up on the part of the actors, since the garish light of day is a sad revealer of grease paint and powder; and the flaring cressets of oil that did service as foot-lights must, it would seem, have made darkness visible, when set beside the modern de-vices. It is plain enough that under these conditions a performance of a play in the particulars of seeing and hearing must have been seriously limited in effect. To reach the audience must have meant an appeal that was broadly human, and essentially dramatic. Fine language was indispensable ; and a language drama is exactly what the Elizabethan theater gives us. Compelling interest of story, skillful mouthing of splendid poetry, virile situations that contained the blood and thunder elements always dear to the heart of the groundlings, these the play of that period had to have to hold the audiences. Impudent breakings in from the gentles who lounged on the stage and blew tobacco smoke from their pipes into the faces perchance of Burbage and Shakespeare himself ; vulgar interpolations of some clown while the stage waited the entrance of a player delayed in the tiring room must have been daily occurrences. And yet, from such a stage, con-fined in extent and meager in fittings, and under such physical limitations of comfort and convenience, were the glories of the master poet given forth to the world. Our sense of the wonder of his work is greatly increased when we get a visualized comprehension of the conditions under which he accomplished it. It is well to add that one of the most fruitful phases of contemporary scholarship is that which has thrown so much light upon the structure of the first English theaters. We now realize as never before the limits of the scenic representation and the necessary restriction consequent upon the style of drama given.

Another interesting and important consideration should also be noted here; and one too generally overlooked. The groundlings in the pit, albeit exposed to wind and weather and deprived of the seats which minister to man's ease and presumably dispose him to a better reception of the piece, were yet in a position to witness the play as a play superior to that of the more aristocratic portions of the assemblage. However charming it may have been for the sprigs of the nobility to touch elbows with Shakespeare on the boards as he delivered the tender lines of old Adam in As You Like It, or to exchange a word aside with Burbage just before he began the immortal soliloquy, "To be or not to be," it is certain that these gentry were not so advantageously placed to enjoy the rendition as a whole as were master Butcher or Baker at the front. And it would seem reasonable to believe that the nature of the Elizabethan play, so broadly humorous, so richly romantic, so large and obvious in its values and languaged in a sort of surplusage of exuberance, is explained by the fact that it was the common herd to whom in particular the play was addressed in these early playhouses: not the literature in which it was written so much as the unfolding story and the tout ensemble which they were in a favorable position to take in. To the upper-class attendant at the play the unity of the piece must have been less dominant. And surely this must have tended to shape the play, to make it a democratic people's product. For it is an axiom that the dominant element in an audience settles the fate of a play.

But this new plaything, the theater, was not only the physical embodiment of the drama, it became a social institution as well. Nor was it without its evils. The splendors of Elizabethan literature have often blinded criticism to the more sleazy aspects of the problem. But investigation has made apparent enough that the Puritan attitude toward the new institution was not without its excuse. As we have seen, from the very first a respectable middle class element of society looked askance at the play-house, and while this view became exaggerated with the growth of Puritanism in England, there is nothing to be gained in idealizing the stage conditions of that time, nor, more broadly, to deny that the manner of life involved and in some regards the nature of the appeal at any period carry with them the likelihood of license and of dissipation. The actor before Shakespeare's day had little social or legal status ; and despite all the leveling up of the profession due to him and his associates, the "strolling player" had to wait long before he became the self-respecting and courted individuality of our own day. Women did not act during the Elizabethan period, nor until the Restoration; so that one of the present possibilities of corruption was not present. But on the other hand, the stage was without the restraining, refining influence of their presence; a coarser tone could and did prevail as a result. The fact that ladies of breeding wore masks at the theater and continued to do so into the eighteenth century speaks volumes for the public opinion of its morals; and the scholar who knows the wealth of idiomatic foulness in the best plays of Shakespeare, luckily hidden from the layman in large measure, does not need to be told of the license and lewdness prevalent at the time. The Puritans are noted for their repressive attitude toward worldly pleasures and no doubt part of their antagonism to the playhouse was due to the general feeling that it is a sin to enjoy oneself, and that any institution which was thronged by society for avowed purposes of entertainment must derive from the devil. But documentary evidence exists to show that an institution which in England made possible the drama of Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Ford, Jonson and Dekkar, writings which we still point to with pride as our chief contribution to the creative literature of the world, could include abuses so flagrant as to call forth the stern denunciations of a Cromwell, and later even shock the decidedly easy standards of a Pepys. The religious element in society was, at intervals, to break out against the stage from pulpit or through the pen, in historical iteration of this early attitude ; as with Collier in his famed attack upon its immorality at the close of the seventeenth century, and numerous more modern diatribes from such clergymen as Spurgeon and Buck-ley.

And in order to understand the peculiar relation of the respectable classes in America to the theater, it is necessary to realize that those cherishing this antipathy were our forefathers, the Puritan settlers. The attitude was inimical, and of course the circumstances were all against a proper development of the function of the playhouse. Art and letters upon American soil, forsooth, had to await their day in the seventeenth and following centuries, when our ancestors had to give their full strength to more utilitarian matters, or to the grave demands of the future life. The Anglo-Saxon notion that the theater is evil is to be traced directly to these historic causes ; and transplanted to so favorable a soil as America, it has produced most unfortunate results in our dramatic history, the worst of all being the general unenlightened view respecting the use and usufruct of an institution in its nature capable of so much good alike to the masses and the classes.



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